The portable power bank first appeared on the scene in 2001, and since then, on-the-go charging has become a possibility for most mobile device users. Now, a new space company wants to bring the concept of mobile charging to the moon — not for cell phones, of course, but for rovers and landers.
Toronto-based Stells, founded by CEO Alex Kapralov and CTO Vital Ioussoupov in 2021, is developing a rover called the Mobile Power Rover (MPR-1) that can power lunar spacecraft through wireless charging. The company has secured a launch date of November 2024 via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and an Intuitive Machines lander, with a tentative landing on the moon in January 2025.
The Stells were initially interested in the lunar drilling industry, specifically lunar craters. But early research confirmed that a power source for a drilling rover would likely be too expensive. That stimulated MPR-1. “Why don’t we just give electricity to others so that they have redundancy in their power supply?” Kapralov told TechCrunch.
Most spacecraft get their power from one of two sources: solar panels and Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG). Solar panels, of course, only work in areas that receive sunlight – deep holes don’t always receive any sunlight. Solar panels also require a lot of surface area. With rovers the size of cars, like those on Mars, that’s not a problem. But the next generation of moon rovers will be smaller. NASA, for example, is developing so-called Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Explorers that can be the size of shoe boxes.
RTG, on the other hand, does not rely on the sun, instead using the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 to generate electricity. The technology is, perhaps not surprisingly, quite expensive, and it is not cost-effective for small rovers.
Given the current push for lunar projects – Artemis 1, for example, launched with four CubeSats destined for the moon (with six more headed elsewhere) – the MPR-1 has the potential to be useful.
“The way we plan to deliver the power is to use a box we call a wireless charging box, or WCB,” Kapralov said. The WCB would harness electricity through solar panels—in the case of a lunar crater, it would place those on the edge of the crater, then run power lines to the crater floor, where the WCB would be placed.
The WCB will then store that power in its batteries, then distribute it quickly to other rovers via wireless charging. Those rovers, which require a specific wireless charging port compatible with the WCB, will be able to navigate the WCB using a beacon or visual navigation. Without the atmosphere to weaken the wireless power signal, this process is much more efficient than on Earth.
Kapralov also hopes that the WCB will be able to travel with the lunar vehicle drained of electricity to provide a jumpstart charge, although this will be a challenge for a future mission. The first mission could only be a technology demonstration for the WCB.
So far, Stells has built prototypes and tested them on Earth — and it’s completely self-funded. “But we will probably start almost at the beginning of next year to try to get some funds for the development and launch of the flight,” said Kapralov.
Over the past two decades, there has been a significant push for lunar exploration, and while the progress has been extensive, the results have been few. Google’s Lunar Xprize competition, for example, has companies developing lunar rovers up for a $20 million grand prize. The competition began in 2007 and has a 2014 deadline for a lunar landing; when it was clear that no one was ready in 2014, that deadline was extended, finally to 2018.
Although five teams ultimately secured launch contracts, Google ended the competition without a winner. Moon Express and Team Indus among those teams canceled their contracts, while Hakuto/ispace and Synergy Moon are still launching. A fifth team, SpaceIL, launched to the moon in 2019, but its landing attempt failed.
However, the moon industry continues to evolve, and more missions are closer to reality than ever before. There are no guarantees—there is fertile ground for well-intentioned failure. But the moon is the limit for many companies like Stells hoping to get there.